Brahms Symphony no. 3 in F, op. 90

as performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Gunter Wand

“Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect.”

Brahms. One of the biggest composers of the 19th century and the Romantic era, and here, perhaps his most compact symphony. For a reason.
He wrote his third symphony around six years after he wrote his second, which I referred to as his pastoral in this article as part of our earliest big Germanic Symphony series.
While the second felt quite pastoral in content and presentation, this one perhaps, as Eduard Hanslick noted above, is a strong contender for a perfect balance between the attitudes and styles of his first two symphonies, but don’t let any quietness fool you. There’s some real tension here.
In the interim between no’s 2 and 3, Brahms had written such successful and enduring pieces as his violin concerto, the two overtures, and his second piano concerto (a monster of a piece). It’s interesting perhaps, then, that what comes next is his smallest and in some ways, quietest, symphony. Hans Richter, the conductor of the premiere in December of 1883, considered it to be Brahms’ Eroica, and apparently not just because it was also his symphony no. 3.
The mascot of the other end of the 19th century music spectrum, Richard Wagner, had died earlier in the year, and his supporters tried to interfere with the premiere of the piece, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. After a few early performances, Brahms would make revisions to the piece and eventually publish it in 1884.
(Spoiler alert: this is the composer’s most personal symphony, and every movement, interestingly, ends quietly. More below.)
A significant thing to make note of for this piece is that… in many ways, while it feels overall soft and almost dainty (at least relative to his first symphony or second piano concerto), there is plenty of tension in the first movement alone, and it all stems from this F-A-F motto (with a flattened A), standing for the German frei aber froh (free but happy), an adaptation of his close friend Joseph Joachim’s frei aber einsam (free but lonely).
Brahms was, by this time, 50 years old and single (he would never marry, although he was engaged once), and apparently felt pretty okay with that, or came to be okay with it eventually. This F-A-F theme opens the piece, with three big giant chords, and a very conspicuous Ab, outside of the scope of the F major key of the piece; it is quickly replaced by a natural A, but the flat shows up here and there, apparently kind of ‘undermining’ the key of the piece and presenting some tension. This fantastic Gramophone article that you should read says that “the ‘A’ in bar two is an A flat, tipping the work instantly towards the minor key, with a sinister tritone adding to the sense of angst.” So, free, but maybe not always happy. Or maybe not without struggle.
What I enjoy about this movement is the balance between the two subjects of the sonata form. The first, as stated above, gives us the tension and some of the more enlivened, impassioned moments of the symphony, while the second subject in A, presented first in clarinets, is indeed free and

happy sounding, bucolic and delightful. I’ve almost never been so happy to hear an exposition repeat as with this symphony. The delineations between themes are so clear, and even the bridge between these two themes is thoroughly pleasing. It sounds for just a bit like the beginning of Sibelius’ second symphony (call me crazy, but I hear it). Also, just before we reach the development, during some key changing and the strong, hefty Brahmsian symphonic sound, in Am is this passage that always leads me to think that the second subject from Beethoven’s Eroica is going to appear. They do sound similar (call me crazy again). Development and recapitulation, with some stuff not included. There’s also apparently a quote from Schumann’s Rhenish symphony in the opening. So there’s all that to consider, and if it wasn’t enough, watch this:

The first movement ends quietly and the second movement is also quiet. It opens with clarinet and strings, and it’s pretty darn beautiful.
One feels some sense of… familiarity with the themes here, as it seems they stem from the F-A-F motto presented so dramatically in the first movement. They end up becoming part of the fabric of this movement, and while it’s generally comfortable and delicate and pleasant, there are a few moments where dark clouds float in and give us a few moments of contrast among these unmistakably beautiful Brahmsian melodies. The power and intensity in this symphony is a hushed one. The movement ends quietly and we get to the third.
Both typical and not, the third movement is the scherzo, marked poco allegretto, and that it is. It’s no Beethoven or Bruckner scherzo. In triple meter, and the shortest of the four movements, it’s a quiet, dainty thing, a very lyrical scherzo in a distant key of Cm. The middle passages have some stronger scherzo-like melodies, but the 3/8 meter feels broad and spacious and almost just the slightest bit melancholy and longing. It, too, ends quietly and brings us to the final movement, which opens in Fm.
I made the comment to a friend that this theme kind of got on my nerves for a period of time. I don’t know what it is. It felt like a kind of goofy bouncing, circusy thing, opening with bassoons and strings, but one comes to appreciate it when you listen to how it reappears in the movement. It’s terribly creative. It’s an interesting melody, and one can almost hear Brahms ringing every last ounce of potential out of this little idea he so quickly presented at the opening. It isn’t long before there’s a crash of of some of the biggest, most dramatic music we’ve heard all symphony. It is quickly tempered, though, by a lyrical bright major-key passage. This kind of inventiveness goes on for the entire movement. Echoes of the opening melody continue through to the end until we get a sort of restatement of the very opening theme, the F-A-F from the very beginning. This is a statement, and it happens with less than a minute left in the Wand recording referenced above. Part of the orchestra is still holding on to the finale’s main theme, but strings remember. The Fm theme finally goes away and the symphony ends with a long, drawn-out sigh of the symphony’s opening melody, with none of the fervor or passion left, but a resigned finality, of satisfaction or sorrow I am not to say.
This piece, as mentioned above, was considered to be the composer’s greatest up to that point, his Eroica, but I feel for different reasons. What I personally feel Beethoven expressed in his third symphony was a universal struggle, suggested perhaps by the Napoleonic theme and disappointment, but it was a scale never-before seen or heard in a symphony, it was truly epic. This most personal symphony of Brahms is of a different nature. It doesn’t make me stand tall and feel heroic or epic or conquering, it is not a sweeping story of success and tragedy, but a personal, internal conflict, an experience. Brahms has always struck me as kind of a gruff, bristly human, someone who, unless you had the fortune to be one of the people he really liked, someone in his very inner circle of trusted friends, could be quite a difficult human to get along with. I have always felt that way, so thinking of the Brahms of the third symphony, a more personal, intimate expression of his feelings, not just Romantic ideals or drama, but perhaps of a personal struggle, especially in the grand layout of a symphony and not a piano sonata or string quartet. Truth be told, I need to be more familiar with all of his works.
This symphony really came to delight, especially in Wand’s vibrant recording here, and it is a quiet but strong reminder that it doesn’t always take big music to make a big statement. The quietly-ending, smallest of Brahms’ symphonies is a delicate, passionate, but personal work that you should come to familiarize yourself with. See you next week for something completely different.
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